Peanut butter and chocolate, Chris Farley and David Spade, Marvel and Capcom. Taking two great things and smashing them together is a long-standing tradition of the human experience. Now, in the year 2012, another legendary combination can be etched into the annals of history – Pokémon and Nobunaga’s Ambition.
Pokémon is the flaky crust and Nobunaga’s Ambition the warm gooey centre in the delicious treat that is Pokémon Conquest, blending the two series into an irresistible strategy RPG. There's enough depth to satisfy die-hard stat junkies, yet it's manageable enough for those migrating from the mainline Pokémon franchise who may have never experienced grid-based combat.
The story takes place in the Ransei region, modelled after Sengoku-era feudal Japan, where rather than capturing Pokémon and carrying them around in Pokéballs, Warriors “link” with their monster partners and send them into battle against opposing armies. There are 17 kingdoms, each helmed by a Warlord, and local legend states that once all 17 territories are united under a single Warlord the Pokémon who created the land will appear and shape the world to that Warlord’s whim. It’s nothing super complex, but it functions well enough to progress the game and provide context for the new style of Pokémon battles.
Anyone familiar with Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – or any other grid-based strategy RPG, really – will immediately feel right at home with Pokémon Conquest’s battle system. Up to six members of your army are sent to the field against an opposing squad. Genre mainstays like positioning and terrain all come into play, forcing you to pay attention to where you and your opponents are at all times, with the extra strategic layer of the “rock-paper-scissors” system that is the crux of the Pokémon franchise added on top. It all works wonderfully together, truly taking the best parts of both franchises involved and crafting something truly fun and engaging.
The battlefields aren’t very large, which works just fine for a DS game. What they lack in surface area they make up for in other ways; different kingdoms have themes that will affect the battlefield in unique ways. Ignis, for example, is a fire-themed kingdom, and every so often volcanic boulders will fall randomly onto the field.
While Nintendo ditched the “gotta catch ‘em all” tagline around the release of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire for the Game Boy Advance, the philosophy has remained at the core of the series and Pokémon Conquest falls in line. Rather than catching wild Pokémon, however, Warriors can be battled and recruited instead. It’s pretty much the same thing, because you’ll really be looking at the Pokémon they use anyway. The Warriors all have long Japanese names and frequently reuse the same sprites so trying to keep track of them will certainly take some extra focus.
That’s not all there is to them, though; every Warrior has a specific Pokémon that they can form a Perfect Link with, which allows that Pokémon to grow much stronger than usual. It can become very addictive trying to find a Perfect Link for every Warrior in your army, but it’s a very rewarding system. Opposing wild Pokémon will have either bronze, silver or gold medals above their heads on the field when different Warriors are selected, indicating their compatibility. To form a link with that Pokémon, a very basic rhythm game ensues where you must tap the A button in time with glowing yellow orbs. Do well enough and that 'mon is added to your arsenal.
What’s a shame is that not every Pokémon is included. There are only about 200 available out of a potential 649, practically guaranteeing that not everyone will be able to obtain their favourites. While it would take a technical miracle to fit that many Pokémon into a game of this scope, it’s disappointing nonetheless.
On top of all this are abilities that can be used by both Pokémon and Warrior alike. Warrior abilities can only be used once per battle and do not count against your turn, and do things like heal Pokémon, increase their range or stats or remove negative effects from your army. Pokémon abilities are similar to the main series of games but are applied in new ways; for example, Sandile’s Intimidate ability will lower the Attack stat of any opposing Pokémon in range each turn.
While at first glance the sheer amount of things to keep track of and experiment with seems daunting, the game does a good job explaining it in manageable chunks and keeping it from becoming overwhelming all at once. It all comes together to add an immense amount of replay value to the game, allowing for immense customisation that Pokémon fans have grown accustomed to. Battles move at a brisk pace and rarely feel like a slog by offering many different ways of continuously rewarding players. Of course, it’s a Pokémon game, so wireless multiplayer battles are in as well.
The game looks beautiful, making fantastic use of colour to bring the world of Ransei to life, which is an impressive feat considering just about everything outside of battle is presented with static sprite work. Every kingdom has a distinct personality to it, making them as varied as the Warriors themselves. The Warlords are all based on actual historical Japanese figures (although generous liberties were taken when designing them) and their designs, staples of the Nobunaga’s Ambition and Samurai Warriors series, work quite well when presented next to Nintendo’s iconic Pocket Monsters. Many are even modelled to look like their Pokémon partners as well.
The sound is impressive for a handheld title to boot. Pokémon cries are simply ported over from the main games, but battle sound effects are clear and satisfying. The music isn’t particularly memorable, but it does an admirable job giving the game feel like it belongs in feudal Japan.
Pokémon Conquest is a game that no one asked for, but many will enjoy — fans of either series will be drawn in by the familiar and be taught to love what’s new. It does just about everything right, though there are shortcomings: more Pokémon being included would have helped, as would a deeper story – Pokémon Black and White showed that the monster-catching series is capable of telling a story with some heft to it. These are little more than nicks in the armour, though. Pokémon Conquest absolutely stands with Pokémon Snap and Pokémon Puzzle League as one of the best spin-offs the franchise has seen.